virtual children by Scott Warnock

Edit [the text of] your life

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On NPR the other day I heard Graham Hill talking about the project LifeEdited. That prompted me to watch his TED talk about his idea, “Edit Your Life.” Hill talks about his own efforts to edit his living space, and proposes how much simpler, and, surprisingly, better, our lives might be if we made do with a lot less.

His premise is straightforward. He suggests that we edit ruthlessly, “clear the arteries of our lives,” cut the extraneous, and stem inflow.

As a culture, we have become obsessed with more. Although today Americans have much more space than 50 years ago, Hill says, a monstrous self-storage industry has emerged in this country. Advertising has made it clear: More is better, and your identity is largely determined by your possessions. I wonder if a primary trait of current child-raising is building covetousness.

But then we look around and in the midst of all of our stuff we ourselves are nowhere to be found.

It’s an intriguing idea, to have a conscious effort to simplify as a means to happiness, and I think of those I know who have a beautiful simplicity to their endeavors. Simple homes. Modest vacations. Subdued birthday parties for their kids. Even streamlined relationships. These people seem happier in so many ways. We live in a time when “it’s complicated,” but is that complication a choice?

Life editing got me, a writing teacher, also thinking about the actual editing we do when writing. (By the way, my preference would be to use the word “revising” instead, but “editing” works okay here because the focus is on reduction.) A fundamental lesson about writing is that you should write long and then cut. Skilled, experienced writers, most of them, know that writing is about revising and cutting. It’s better to write long and then go through the difficult, sometimes painful, process of cutting, weeding out, reducing. The text takes its shape from all of this excess material. In the archives of the writing history of successful writers are millions of discarded words. It’s the nature of the business. You take a look and cut, viciously and thoroughly.

A life edit would require similarly aggressive cutting, and the consequential pleasure of it. Indeed, pleasure. Hill suggests most of us can think of times when we experience of “the joys of less,” which include more freedom and more time. “Let’s make room for the good stuff,” he says. This careful reduction may not just be of possessions, but simplifying the static of incoming information, of desires, of complexity.

It strikes me as a fascinating exercise to take the body of your life’s experience and edit. Take your baseline of experiences, things, and even thoughts, and see what you could do with fewer of each. It would be difficult, for sure. It might even be scary, because as you cut away, you’d realize that you’d be getting closer to your actual self.

Fortunately, most of us already have a nice head start on this process, because, like skilled writers, we already have the massive text: We have developed/accumulated a life text that is overflowing, flabby, verbose. By using the eye of an editor, we might shape that mass down to, what Hill says, is the “good stuff.”

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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2 Responses to “Edit [the text of] your life”

  1. The current philosophy of our home is that if you have to dust it, it is not “needed.” Our only current challenge is how to display the cherished photographs without dust-needing frames or power hogging digital displays,
    The physical and mental aspects however are both invigorating and terrifying. Am I certain that what I discard in my life story will not be critical in 40 years? This may be the primary reason I prefer reading to writing.

  2. Scott, I really enjoyed this piece, second only to the infamous push mower article from years ago. As one who lives by the tenet “simple is true” (yes, stolen from Jewel!) I had never made the connection between my love of decluttering – or not buying crap in the first place – and my love of editing, so I thank you for that. I should add that although there are plenty of Americans who still feel the need to keep, in Dr. Seuss’s words, biggering and biggering, I’m encouraged by the recent influx of Tiny Living blogs, magazines, television shows, etc. that have started to hit the mainstream. The revival of Airstream popularity, not just as a recreational vehicle but as a primary residence, is encouraging. If you look out into your backyard one day and notice a silver bullet with a truffula tree growing beside it, you’ll know that I’ve done some major life editing.

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